Change, Passion, & Goodwill
It takes less than a minute of listening to Amy Guth on WGN-AM 720 radio in Chicago to know you are listening to a woman who is passionate about making a difference. She is badass. Along with being a radio host, she is the Senior Facilitator of the Op-Ed Project and President of the Association for Women Journalists in Chicago. She uses her voice to cultivate change and initiate powerful discussions. She is interviewing Syrian refugees in European refugee camps this summer for “Refugee Kitchen,” and is currently directing and producing her online documentary series on online harassment. Her documentary took seed on Kickstarter and with the help of courageous women willing to share their stories, Jackie Kostek (Director of Photography), and Tamar Fox (Locations Manager), will release in waves this Fall. I admire how authentic you are Amy. I admire how when asked why someone would find you inspiring you responded, “I care about making the world-- online and offline-- safe for all people, about the safety and support of women in workplaces but especially in journalism, and I care deeply about shifting culture to be more inclusive and diverse. I can’t do it all, but I can do all I can for as long as I’m living. I think there’s power in starting, power in saying “yes” and power in great focus. If that is helpful to someone else, I’ll be deeply grateful.”
Amy in her own words...
I wrote every single person a quick “thank you” within the Kickstarter messaging system as the backing came in, and am still sending out “perks” in waves (because writing that many hand-written thank you notes is no joke, but I’m going to get there!), but I would like to say: thank you from the bottom of my heart. Because you backed the project and gave even one of your hard-earned dollars to the project, I’m able to gather and share important stories and, interview by interview, bring this project to life, with the vision of it making a real difference in the way we treat each other online.
For those hearing about it for the first time, allow me to introduce you: I’m creating an episodic documentary about women (mostly, though not entirely) and online civility, harassment and abuse. My aim is to focus on both outlining the scope of this epidemic as well as solutions, to capture stories and to reach across the aisle. I’m looking at everything from “snark” as a default language of online communities all the way to revenge porn and beyond. I’ll also be taking a look at historical examples of backlash against women’s voices, and the narratives we commonly use around this topic that might, in fact, be doing more harm than good.
2. You are no stranger to online harassment, to what extremes have you personally experienced online harassment? In what ways do your personal accounts affect how you produce and direct your documentary?
Indeed, I’m not, and, on some level, there is some degree of both freedom and power in having already gone through it, knowing the lay of the land, and knowing how to navigate. As for the specifics, it’s, unfortunately, similar to a lot of women with a public voice, ranging from rudeness to rape and death threats, doxxing and harassment. The experience opened my eyes to the range of abuses, and I couldn’t *not* do something about it. I believe that if you catch yourself saying, “Someone’s got to do something about XYZ!” then that person should be you.
As for my personal accounts, it’s hard to say. The documentary isn’t about me; it’s about the stories of others, so I don’t know if the two inform one another. But, I will say that all of this experience has changed the way I interact on social media in that if I see a person getting beat up online, I’m usually going to check in with them, offer some form of support or kindness, simply because I know how important even one word of support is, especially when facing a tidal wave of hatred.
One that sticks out so clearly to me is on a particularly rough day online, a woman I barely know sent me a note that said something like, “Sister, I see you today. Hang tight.” That note mattered. She didn’t have to do that, but she did and it mattered that she opted for support over indifference or apathy.
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3. You shared on your Kickstarter campaign, “Only thing I’ve come to fear is that we risk ignoring this widespread issue and allowing it to continue, and we risk continuing to teach women and girls to limit their public voices.” What does “limit their public voices” refer to? In regards to ignoring the issue, why do you think many women decide to choose the “Just don’t look” approach?
When I see anyone, but especially, women disengaging or limiting their public voice, or censoring her power out of fear, it really pains me. It’s a personal choice as to how much of yourself you share online, but when that’s for each of us to decide for ourselves, and not something that we should decide out of fear, or that should be decided for us.
If we have people opting out of the public narrative out of fear or frustration, then only the loudest and the meanest will be left, and then that is the group who will write history. And what I want in the history books is a wide array of voices to tell the story for as many different perspectives as possible, not for one vocal majority to speak for everyone.
Having a diverse narrative is important not only because it’s fair and just, but consider this African proverb: “Until the lion learns to write, the tale of the hunt will glorify the hunter.”
4. What nuggets of advice would you share with someone who is currently experiencing online harassment? To a mom who has a daughter navigating harassment for her first or hundredth time?
There’s no one-size-fits-all response. Just speak your truth. And, frankly, I think it’s important to teach young people the value of their voice, and the importance of standing up for themselves. Both tools that will serve them for a lifetime. So, in some cases, it might be best to ignore something not worth your time, but in other cases, it might be important to say, “You cannot speak to me this way and this conversation is over,” or “what you’re saying is breaking the law.” It really depends. But, it’s important to not jump to the “just ignore it” or “you don’t even know that person, who cares?” stances. It’s very case by case. Even now, I take it instance by instance.
Also, it’s important for women to listen to one another and honor the real emotions that this stuff can bring up. There are cases of women being diagnosed with PTSD after severe and prolonged online abuse. It’s real. And, we need to be able to talk to each other and give one another support and honor each other’s experience instead of jumping to “ahh, blow it off!”
That said, it’s never easy, and I think there is an inherent tension there. Personally, I don’t allow the behavior of others to dictate my behavior, so if I respond, it’s always from a place of empathy and civility. Which is not necessarily the same as “nice,” and not without assertiveness, but it’s not rude, either. But, I’m also keenly aware that there is still a stigma attached to women’s anger in that we’re “crazy” or “bitches” or “shrill” when we speak out or defend ourselves against bad behavior, and so it’s also very valid to bring anger and it’s power into the conversation. For me, anger and incivility are not mutually exclusive, or even connected, per se. I can be angry with the fire of a thousand suns, but I still don’t resort to rudeness or being abusive in return because I always ask myself what is behind the anger and get to the heart of the matter. Indeed, civility and radical honesty are what is going to save is all, online and off.
"There are cases of women being diagnosed with PTSD after severe and prolonged online abuse. It’s real. And, we need to be able to talk to each other and give one another support and honor each other’s experience instead of jumping to “ahh, blow it off!”
5. You started production in March of this year and you plan on releasing episodes in late fall. How do you feel about what you have accomplished so far? What surprises have you faced?
So far, so good! I am honored to be working with brilliant, strong, talented women on the production that I both respect so much intellectually and professionally, but whom I also consider close friends.
The only pain point is that it doesn’t happen faster, but, indeed, there are only so many interviews you can reasonably fit into a day, and we’re planning it all around many people’s lives and careers and kids and distances and all of those things. But, we’re getting there.
6. What do you hope someone takes away after watching one of your episodes? What are the differences between how a woman vs. a man reacts to your project, if there are any?
My motivation is rarely to be right; what I want is for people to consider subjects from different angles and cultivate a culture of empathy and discussion. We’ve lost that is a big way-- the ability to discuss. Instead, we curate our influx of information to reinforce what we want to believe, and we don’t debate or discuss; we argue to be “right” and shut each other down. We need to change that, across all topics. I don’t need to be right, but I do want to make people consider different points of view. If someone legitimately and respectfully considers an alternate point of view and then considers whether or not its an idea worth taking on, I’ve done my job.
7. What is the common thread between all the women you choose to interview for your documentary? What were some of the responses you received when you approached them?
There’s not one, really. I’m talking to a wide variety of people, men and women, that transcends age, gender, region, ability, class, nationality, race, identity, profession, and political affiliation, and, in so doing, I’m hearing a wide variety of opinions and experiences.
Most people are open to the conversation, but it’s sometimes hard to convince people I truly want to reach across the aisle and engage in dialogue and offer space to such a range of voices.
8. You are a crusader, a role model, and built to make a difference. You shared, “I can’t do it all, but I can do all I can for as long as I’m living. I think there’s power in starting, power in saying “yes” and power in great focus.” Where do you get your drive from? Who is your role model?
Thank you. Just about everyone in my family is really passion-fueled by something. I can’t think of a single relative who is “meh” about anything.
"Instead, we curate our influx of information to reinforce what we want to believe, and we don’t debate or discuss; we argue to be “right” and shut each other down. We need to change that, across all topics."
I have to feel good and passionate about a project down to my core. People often ask me about “doing so much” and make jokes like, “you must never sleep!” Whoa. Stop. Here’s the deal: I passionately and judiciously guard my sleep and believe good sleep is a key to positive, healthy, and thoughtful living. I also carefully pick my projects and say “no” if it doesn’t move me-- every project is going to have tedious or frustrating legs in the journey, so it’s really important to take on things that you can’t shut up about, because that will feed your energy and keep you motivated and excited and focused when the days are feeling uphill. The way I decide? If it’s not a “OH, HELLLLLL YES!” then it’s a hell no.
10. Please know that you are a total badass. Which is why it is excited to ask, what’s next for you?
Hot damn, you know the way to my heart! Thank you! Well, this documentary project is going to take some time since I’ll be it by episodes and seasons, but, I never have just one thing going. So, I also have a couple of ideas for my next few documentaries after this one starts to wind down. And, I’m also very interested in audio projects, multimedia literary publishing, and collaborations. But, one thing that I have been dreaming about lately is doing an audio and video multimedia project of hiking the Appalachian Trail, segment by segment over the span of a few years, so I made a plan and I intend to keep plugging away at that.
I’m also finishing up one hell of a awesome tattoo and doubling down to bring my yoga practice up to the next level; I get so much joy from that… probably because I listen to music and rock out or bliss out or shake it out with wild abandon as I go.
"...so it’s really important to take on things that you can’t shut up about, because that will feed your energy and keep you motivated and excited and focused when the days are feeling uphill. The way I decide? If it’s not a “OH, HELLLLLL YES!” then it’s a hell no."
Well, I come from a long line of characters, so I admire people who are unapologetically their truest selves, and who dream big but then really hustle and do the work to make that goal happen, while really, really living. I mean, time goes by so fast, we have to wring every last drop out of every day. What the hell else are we here for? Sitting around and watching reality TV? Please. The world will make your heart burst with joy and meaning and truth and humanity if you go out into it, and if you let it.